Colombia, the Gem and Bane of the Hemisphere

US news focuses narrowly on the baneful

COLOMBIA - case study in failure and success - is once again headline news in the United States, for the only reason that Colombia is ever news here, the illegal drug trade.

The story may be confusing to American readers. On the one hand, the year-old administration of President Ernesto Samper Pizano has been widely praised for orchestrating the arrests of Colombia's most notorious drug kingpins. Virtually the entire leadership of the Cali cartel, the largest narcotics operation in the world, is now behind bars.

On the other hand, Mr. Samper himself stands accused of having knowingly accepted money from the cartel to finance his presidential campaign last year, and he may be forced to resign. His campaign manager, the former minister of defense, has already been jailed.

Drugs are a noxious fact of life, permeating society. Corruption, public and private, is widespread. Criminal violence levels are among the highest in the world. Homicide rates are three to four times those in the US.

Long guerrilla war

Colombia faces other serious problems as well. For more than 30 years, governments have confronted one of the largest, most unrelenting guerrilla insurgencies in the hemisphere. Although they do not threaten central government power, the guerrillas - whose activities have become enmeshed with those of drug traffickers - control vast areas of land, diminish the credibility of state authority, and add to the pervasive violence of the society. The insurgency has provoked a brutal counterinsurgency by military and paramilitary forces, leaving Colombia with one of Latin America's worst records of human rights abuses. Although Samper has been credited by rights activists for efforts to improve the situation, up to 10 politically motivated murders are still committed each day.

There is, however, another side to Colombia that is most often blocked from view by the continuing flood of news about drugs, violence, and criminality. Colombia is one of only two countries in South America that managed to avoid military rule during the coup-prone 1960s and 1970s. Since 1958, it has been governed by freely elected civilian presidents, every one of whom completed his term of office. Even with Samper coming under pressure to resign and Colombia facing a period of political turmoil, no one seems to fear a breakdown of the democratic order. The military remains clearly on the sidelines. Just a few years ago, Colombia completed a model constitutional reform designed to widen political participation.

Region's best record

Even more impressive than the durability of its constitutional rule has been Colombia's economic performance - the strongest of any Latin American country for the past 25 years or so. Avoiding the boom and bust syndrome that has characterized most of the region's economies, Colombia has enjoyed steady growth year in and year out, even during the debt crisis of the 1980s. Indeed, Colombia was the only major country in Latin America that did not have to reschedule its debt payments; it kept its borrowing under control and always paid up on time.

More recently, Colombia was untouched by the Mexico peso crisis, which sent shock waves through many of the region's economies. Drug receipts, like oil revenues in some countries, have hindered, not helped, the country's achievement of sound economic policy and stable growth.

US media coverage explains the American public's one dimensional image of Colombia. It does not explain why US policy toward a country as complex and important as Colombia has been so dominated by the single issue of drugs. On both economic and political criteria, for example, Colombia should be a strong candidate for membership in NAFTA. On most counts, it is competitive with Chile, the country next in line to join the trade group. Colombia has been the more economically stable of the two. It has more than twice the population and a larger volume of trade with the US. Yet the US has not yet begun to pursue the question of NAFTA entry for Colombia.

The drug trade will, and should, remain a central issue in US relations with Colombia. It would be shortsighted and self-defeating, however, to let drugs crowd out such other key issues as human rights, democracy, and trade. The US needs a wider lens to understand and cooperate effectively with Colombia.

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